Measuring Social Justice

Shane Britton

How do you measure social justice? The concept is difficult enough to define, let alone quantify. Nevertheless, the government’s Social Justice Outcomes Framework, published towards the end of last year, seeks to do just that.

The Framework builds on the government’s strategy Social Justice: Transforming Lives, which targets four key areas to deliver social justice: supporting families; keeping young people on track; tackling entrenched worklessness; and supporting the most disadvantaged adults.

This approach aims to tackle poverty and inequality by turning around the lives of the most disadvantaged individuals and families. It recognises that many of the most excluded people suffer “multiple disadvantages”, and represents, according to Ian Duncan Smith, a move away from “the simplistic concept of income transfer” towards “a much more ambitious approach aspiring to deliver Social Justice through life change”.

This focus on transforming lives is welcome, and has great potential in turning around the lives of people facing multiple and complex needs. However, given an increased focus on outcomes and payment by results in public policy, it still begs the question: How do you measure if the lives of the most disadvantaged people are being transformed? How can the government check if their approach to social justice is working?

The Outcomes Framework goes some of the way to answering these questions, proposing indicators which look at recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, improved employment outcomes, and reduced reoffending among the most disadvantaged adults.

However, the best way to answer these questions is to ask the real experts: people with experience of multiple and complex needs who know what has helped them.

We did this recently by consulting our service user forum on the contents of the proposed Outcomes Framework. Their response is available here.

While forum members were positive about the direction of the government’s strategy, and pleased that efforts were being made to check progress, they felt it missed some key elements.

Firstly, there is no proposed measure of housing outcomes. Housing was the first issue raised in each of our focus groups when we asked what the most important things were in turning people’s lives around. For many people, a lack of secure housing makes it difficult to address other problems in their lives.

Housing is a particular problem for offenders being released from prison. One study suggests that 30% of people released from prison will have nowhere to live on release, despite the fact that stable housing had been estimated to reduce reoffending by over 20%.

Secondly, concerns were raised that there was no mention of mental health outcomes. Poor mental health is often closely linked to a range of other problems, and getting help for these issues was seen as crucial by many members of our forum.

This was linked to a third concern; the overriding emphasis in the Outcomes Framework on employment outcomes. Forum members recognised that finding a job can be a key part of recovery, however for many of the most excluded people, living the most chaotic lives, sustained employment is a more distant and long-term aim. They suggested that it was important to recognise progress towards employment, such as education and volunteering, which have helped them in their journey.

Overall, underlying most responses was the sense that measuring outcomes in this area needed a more holistic approach, including health and wellbeing outcomes. It is vital that the tools we use to measure progress on the social justice agenda, and to build evidence of “what works”, reflect the complexity of the problems that people face. This must move beyond whether or not they have reoffended or found a job. As one forum member stated:

“There’s no such thing as tick-boxes in life. You’ve got to look at the whole situation”.